Swoopes, Leslie lead way for Team USA (again)

Sheryl Swoopes shared an amusing memory from her national team experience back in 1995-96. That was when USA Basketball, stung by bronze medals in women's hoops at the 1992 Olympics and 1994 World Championships, put together a traveling team that toured for several months before taking the gold in the 1996 Atlanta Games.

It was, perhaps, the best and most far-reaching decision in the history of American women's basketball. Not just because of the success of the U.S. team that has resulted, but also because it spurred the launch of the WNBA.

The U.S. women have won all three Olympic gold medals and both World Championships titles since. Swoopes has been a key part of all of that, except the 1998 worlds, in which she didn't play. Swoopes' international success is another long chapter in her legendary career.

Yet …

"I remember back when we first started this whole thing, training and playing for Tara VanDerveer," Swoopes said in a teleconference Tuesday, "I said that when that year was over with I was done with USA Basketball. Because it was so competitive and hard."

That seems hilarious now. In fact, in retrospect, this is what Swoopes should have been thinking then: "OK, OK … I'll play at the highest level for one more decade … but no promises after that!"

The Houston Comets forward is one of eight players who will represent the U.S. team at the upcoming World Championships in September in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She is joined by another triple gold medalist, Lisa Leslie of the
Los Angeles Sparks.

The rest of the "core eight" are Swoopes' Houston teammate Tina Thompson, Seattle's Sue Bird, Phoenix's Diana Taurasi, Washington's DeLisha Milton-Jones, Detroit's Katie Smith and Indiana's Tamika Catchings. The remaining four spots will be filled later this summer, and it's likely at least one college player will make the team.

Houston's Dawn Staley, also part of the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympic champions and in her final season as a WNBA player, will be one of the assistant coaches on Anne Donovan's staff. So, too, will be the Connecticut Sun's Mike Thibault and Duke's Gail Goestenkors.

Nobody's going to be surprised if Swoopes and Leslie last all the way through the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. And a fourth go at that ultimate gold certainly would be a pinnacle for them. But these World Championships mean
quite a lot, too.

Obviously, it won't for most sports fans in the United States. In September, they will be fully engaged in the NFL and college football. Yet the women's hoops world title is very much coveted by the rest of the world's teams, who all dream of being the group that knocks off the U.S. at a major competition.

The Americans have often carried the banner for the world in women's team sports -- so much so that when a nation beats the United States, it's typically looked on as a benchmark both for that team and for the sport itself.

Case in point: soccer and ice hockey. The U.S. soccer team won the inaugural Women's World Cup in 1991, fell in the final to Norway in 1995 and took the title over China in the biggest women's-only sports competition in history in 1999.

Then in 2003, when the U.S. team lost to Germany in the semifinals -- making for the first World Cup title game without the U.S. women -- American players were glum but visionary about what it meant for their sport. In spite of
their disappointment, the Americans knew the Germany-Sweden final was good for women's soccer globally.

Meanwhile, women's ice hockey has been dominated by Canada and the United States. They met in the gold medal game of the first two Olympic competitions (1998 and 2002) and all nine World Championships, which began in 1990.

But that changed in February at the Turin Olympics, when Sweden upset the American women in the semifinals. Afterward, in a bittersweet irony for the U.S. team, the Swedish women talked about how they motivated
themselves with multiple viewings of "Miracle" -- the film depicting the underdog U.S. men's team beating the Soviets in the 1980 Winter Games.

The Swedish women talked about what a boost this was not just for their program but for all of European women's hockey. The distraught Americans acknowledged -- just as their soccer sisters had -- that this was for the best in terms of the sport's growth.

Admittedly, international women's basketball has a much longer -- and different -- history than soccer or ice hockey. The World Championships for women's hoops date back to 1953, and the Americans won that year
and in 1957. But the Soviet Union would win five of the next six world titles, spanning from 1959 through 1983.

The only one the Soviets didn't take during that stretch was in 1979 -- when they boycotted the event in South Korea and the Americans won. The United States, incidentally, had boycotted the worlds in Moscow in 1959, which is when the Soviets started their run.

The Soviets won the first two Olympic gold medals (1976, '80); the United States, of course, boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games. Then the Soviets boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Games and the U.S. women got their first Olympic gold medal in basketball.

The remnants of the Soviet Union -- referred to as the Unified Team in the 1992 Olympics -- were the last hurrah for that juggernaut. Yet in the past two World Championships, Russia has taken silver and pushed the Americans in the final both times -- losing by just six points in 1998 and five in 2002.

Swoopes, who turned 35 in March and is the oldest player on this U.S. squad now, knows the history -- at least the recent vintage.

"It's going to be a challenge," Swoopes said. "It never gets easier. If anything, it always gets tougher and tougher. Having to play Russia in the first round this year will be tough. I think a lot of people think that because we are the U.S., people have the respect for us, and it's not as hard as we talk about."

Sure, there's a healthy "awe" factor with the U.S. team -- how could there not be? But Swoopes said that can dissipate rather rapidly.

"I think when the game first starts, they may be a little intimidated because it is the United States and people expect us to be the best," Swoopes said of the Americans' opponents. "But the longer we allow teams to stay with us, the more confident they get and the more they feel that they actually have the opportunity to win. I don't think we look past any
opponent, no matter who we're playing."

That's one of the great things about this group of eight: You really believe that even the younger players such as Catchings, Bird and Taurasi do take every game very seriously and have that "we can't let down at all" mentality.

American women's basketball fans, meanwhile, might find themselves a little torn about the World Championships, and they can thank the longevity and makeup of the WNBA for that. Most will cheer, obviously, for the U.S. team. But with the impact foreign players have had on the WNBA, some fans' favorites are not Americans.

For instance, there are likely to be some Storm fans who just can't help themselves from pulling for Lauren Jackson's Aussie squad. And Houston backers might feel at least a little twinge for the Brazilians, led by longtime Comet Janeth Arcain.

Arcain is not playing in the WNBA this year as she prepares with her team for the World Championships in her home country. She also didn't play for Houston in the 2004 season as she got ready for the Athens Olympics.

Swoopes and Thompson are good friends with their former teammate. They miss Arcain being in Houston, but they understand her decision.

"I know that she wouldn't want anything less than to win a gold medal playing the World Championships in her home country," Swoopes said. "[There] everybody respects what she does on the basketball court and what she does off the basketball court, because she has so much to offer.

"I'm really so excited about going to Brazil and to get to see her and how she is in her home country. She is not only an incredible athlete, but probably a better person. She's going to do whatever she has to do as an individual to make sure that her team is ready. You definitely have to give her a lot of credit for what she's doing now."

Yes, and you have to credit Swoopes and Leslie, in particular, for leading the way in so many international competitions for the U.S. team.

"It never gets old, it never gets boring," Swoopes said. "There's always something I can feel that I can contribute to this team and contribute to my country."

Indeed, this USA Basketball stuff really wasn't too competitive or too hard for her, after all.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.